Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

Recently there has been an increase in videos posted on social media depicting “dog shaming” or dogs looking “guilty” after getting into something they shouldn’t have. This raises the question, do dogs actually perceive guilt the same way that humans do or is this just our human perception getting the best of us. Thankfully, modern science has the answer to this question.

Dogs are incredibly adaptable and interesting animals because of the way they read our emotions, facial expressions and body language. For centuries they’ve been studying us and learning how to cohabitate with human beings. Although we can share a lot of similar traits, our tendency to anthropomorphize animals (applying human traits to animals) can lead us to make false and often detrimental assumptions about what they’re trying to communicate or are feeling.

When our dog gets into the garbage, chews our favourite shoes or pees somewhere other than outside, we tend to get upset with them. This leads our body to go through significant changes that our dogs, over thousands of years spent with us, have learned to identify. Slight changes to our posture, facial expression and tone of voice can determine how our dogs respond to us, even if we’re trying our best to hide it. Amazingly, our dogs can even smell changes in our emotions through the pheromones we secrete as we become angry, scared, excited, etc.

So what is a dog feeling when we shame or scold them for something they’ve done wrong (in our perception)? Well, the answer might make you feel a bit guilty for taking that puppy shaming video.

It turns out, our dogs aren’t feeling shame or guilt at that moment, they’re feeling fear. The behaviours we see as funny or cute are actually very real signals of stress and fear. Hiding, crouching down, tucking the tail, pulling the ears back, showing teeth, and having wide eyes or exposing the whites of their eyes are all signals that your dog is very uncomfortable and showing signs of stress. This can lead to a dog distrusting and fearing the person who, ideally, should be the person they feel the safest around.

So if we can’t shame or scold our dogs when they do something we disagree with, what can we do to stop the behaviour? The answer to this can vary depending on your dog and their day to day behaviour and routine. To unravel why our dogs get into things and become destructive around the house, we must ask a few key questions.

Has my dog had enough physical and mental stimulation today?

This can play a large role in behaviours in dogs. It’s especially true in puppies and more active breeds. For example, a German Shepherd needs significantly more mental and physical stimulation in comparison to a Shih Tzu because of their very different breed traits. One dog was bred for working and one was bred as a companion animal. Although a short walk might be enough to tire out a Shih Tzu, the German Shepherd will most likely need a lot more time to tire out and might even need some sort of mentally tiring work to do before being left alone.

Is my dog displaying signs of stress before I leave them alone?

Pacing, panting, following us around, whining and other restless behaviours can play a big roll in what our dogs are feeling as soon as we close the door to leave. If we take a moment to imagine what our dogs are feeling, it becomes clear why they’re having a tough time behaving when we leave. Dogs have been living among humans for thousands of years and they can have a significant attachment to their human companions. When we get up to leave, our dogs start to panic because they know they’ll be left behind. When we leave and close the door in their face, a full-blown panic attack can happen for some dogs. They might hyperventilate, whine, bark, and most importantly, look for ways to relieve this stress. Unfortunately, often our homes and furniture can pay the price for this. Giving our dogs a job to do before we leave can sometimes help to curb this behaviour. For example, asking your dog to go lay in its bed, waiting for them to be completely calm and possibly giving them something to chew on can help them stay calm when you leave and stay calm while you’re away. (My dogs love dehydrated sweet potatoes as their “go to bed” snack.)

Could my dog be exhibiting a medical issue that we’re not aware of?

Dogs are able to have many of the same mental and physical illnesses as humans but can display them in different ways. For example, many dogs can suffer from anxiety disorders that make it impossible for them to relax without proper medication. Some dogs can also have pain in their bodies that can cause them to be restless and release their energy in unexpected and often unwanted ways. This is why it’s so important to consult with a vet before seeking behavioural training so we can rule out any medical conditions that can get in the way of their rehabilitation.

These questions can help you determine the cause of a dog’s destructive behaviour and hopefully help you stay patient and calm when you come home to a chewed slipper or a knocked over garbage can. Always keep in mind, our dogs were bred, conditioned and biologically programmed to please and help humans. Although it might look like they’re doing things like this to annoy or “get back” at you, they’re really trying to communicate how stressed they are.

If you or anyone you know has had these issues with their dog and need some help curbing this behaviour, please don’t hesitate to reach out and hopefully, we can help your pup feel more calm and secure when left alone.

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